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A Fundamental Right to Fairness




Most of us have heard this story: A boy’s parents, puzzled by his claims that his teacher doesn’t believe in homework or tests, send a note to school asking, “What is going on in your classroom?”

The teacher replies, “If you promise not to believe everything your son says about what happens in my class, I promise not to believe everything he says about what happens at home.”

The story is humorous, but it also illustrates the serious fact that educators can be easy targets for false accusations. Sometimes these stories are relatively harmless, concocted by students who don’t want to do their homework. Occasionally, though, false allegations threaten to ruin reputations and careers.

Fortunately, while educators are vulnerable to false accusations, they are protected by grievance procedures. Some of these procedures are spelled out in contracts, while others are written into state laws. They all exist for the same reason—to ensure that the truth comes to light.

That is an important point to remember. As education professionals, we all want to uphold the standards of our profession. We have no reason or desire to protect anyone who has broken the law or crossed any other line.

At the same time, we recognize that students, parents, and administrators can have ulterior motives for leveling charges of impropriety against teachers and other educators. These motives can range from revenge for a poor grade to retaliation for a disciplinary action. A false allegation against school employees can be economically, emotionally, and financially devastating. The only way to sift through the false claims and the legitimate ones is with a procedure that allows all sides—and witnesses—to be heard.

Like our legal system, these procedures aren’t always perfect. But for the most part, they work. A case in point is the NEA member in this month’s cover story who was falsely accused of inappropriately touching a student. Through the grievance procedure, the facts finally came out, and people who had supposedly witnessed the alleged incident admitted that it never happened. If the accuser’s word had been taken at face value, a career and reputation would have been ruined.

The grievance process serves another purpose, too. Sometimes it takes a while for the facts to be revealed. In the meantime, an educator who is falsely accused can feel isolated, powerless, and frightened. The knowledge that the Association stands behind the quest for truth is a source of strength and comfort to those who are fighting against unfair attacks.

Unfortunately, educators can’t always count on fair treatment. But they can always count on Team NEA. We work in legislatures and with school districts for laws and contracts that guarantee fairness, and we make every effort to improve the process that determines an educator’s rights. NEA and its state affiliates also devote significant resources to the legal protection of their members.

Most of our members will never need to file a grievance, but you can never underestimate the importance of a strong union. Grievance procedures are an essential tool in maintaining the standards of our profession. In the long run, that is not only good for educators—it’s good for students as well.

NEA President Reg Weaver

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21-Oct-07